How to enjoy fall festivities without spreading COVID-19

Some traditions are riskier than others.

Fall is finally here, and the cooler weather is a welcome relief from the summer heat. Even as the seasons change, COVID-19 is here to stay for the foreseeable future. While the chillier temperatures may kickstart your craving for taking gatherings indoors, it’s still important to do what you can to stop the spread of COVID-19. So bundle up with a cozy sweater, stay outside when you can, and check out a few festivities that will keep you and your family and friends safe and in the fall spirit this season.

In general, the safest places to be this fall are outdoor spaces where it’s easy to keep social distance, says Joshua Petrie, an epidemiology researcher at the University of Michigan.

“You would want to avoid big gatherings where there’s a lot of people, especially if they’re going to be in close contact for long periods of time,” says Petrie. “You would also want to assess how well you can do the risk-reduction techniques that we’re all used to now, like wearing masks and social distancing. And if it’s an outdoor activity, that’s going to be better.” The risk of any activity depends on the level of COVID-19 in your area, he adds, so make sure to check if your city or town’s cases are spiking before you venture out..

Least risky: Hiking and apple picking

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the safest place to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19 has been inside your own home with just your roommates or family. But the next best thing is to get outdoors, a safe distance from other people and with plenty of fresh air. Luckily, some of the best, most traditional fall activities—apple picking and hiking—line up perfectly with those guidelines.

Apple orchards hit every point for a safe fall activity. They are spacious, outdoor areas where it’s easy to maintain a safe social distance while scooping up some tasty autumn treats. Apple harvesting season started in late July, but there are still several varieties that are ripe for the picking well into October. Red Delicious apples are best picked early this month, and if you’re into baking, then look for some perfectly-ripe Cortlands—a favorite for apple pie. Look for orchards in your area that are following the CDC’s social distancing and capacity guidelines.

“It’s a good idea, especially if you’re going apple picking where you might run into a few more people, to bring your mask,” says Petrie. But overall, he says, as long as you’re able to maintain a safe social distance from others, apple-picking is pretty low-risk.

It’s also the perfect time of year to go on a fall hike and look at the changing autumn leaves, creating the gorgeous autumn landscape you know and love all across the US. If you live in the Northeast or Midwest, the best time to head outside and look for the best fall colors is right about now in the first weeks of October. If you’re in the southern half of the country, the best is yet to come—Texas should be seeing the most colors for the region in early- to mid-November.

Make sure before you head out for your apples and fall views that you mask up, and be sure to follow CDC guidelines and check the health recommendations in your area.

Not too risky: Camping

If you’re craving a change of scenery, it’s probably still not wise to jet set off on a vacation or an extensive road trip. But camping in a nearby campground, or even your backyard, can still be a perfect nature getaway with your social bubble. But think twice about inviting people you haven’t seen in a while.

“Some people, when they go camping, tend to go in big groups, and they might not be people they live with, and they travel from all around to go camping together,” says Petrie. “That would be higher risk than just going out with your family or a smaller group. But in general, being outside and not being in contact with a lot of people should be pretty safe.”

Stick with your close family or roommates, and if you’re exploring the wilderness outside of your backyard, be sure to check the local COVID-19 levels where you’re coming from as well as where you’re headed.

Kind of risky: Tailgating

Outdoor tailgate parties are a classic autumn tradition, but it’s definitely not a great idea to get all your friends together to share snacks and cheer on your favorite team. Luckily, many professional sports teams are rethinking tailgates and coming up with coronavirus-safe solutions to keep the tradition alive.

Tailgates, in general, may at first seem low risk—you’re in a large outdoor parking lot and you can just stay with your own group at your car. Still, when you’re eating and drinking you aren’t wearing a mask, and unless cars have a few spaces between them, you’re probably going to be less than six feet away from your neighbors. Shouting and singing also propel droplets that could contain the virus further than just talking quietly. Also, there’s a big difference between tailgating with your close family members or roommates in your bubble and heading to a large college tailgate party—the latter poses a much bigger risk.

“[Tailgating has] being outside going for it, and if you’re doing mask-wearing and social distancing it’s going to be relatively low risk, especially if it’s one car with your family or the people you’re normally in contact with or a small group of close friends,” says Petrie. “But the more people you bring in, especially if they’re traveling from other areas, it’s going to be higher risk.”

One solution, developed by the architectural firm Populous for the Milwaukee Bucks, uses stacked shipping containers converted into viewing boxes where 4-6 people can watch the game streamed to large LED displays. The Bucks are considering food services for the boxes, as well as turning a parking garage into a giant ticketed drive-in theater with 360-degree screens.

If your team isn’t offering a safe tailgate option, there are still ways of enjoying the game with friends and family. You can host a virtual watch party and hang out on video chat while watching from home. If you’ve got a backyard, set up a mini-tailgate with people in your bubble. After all, cornhole and cheering for your team isn’t limited to a parking lot. If you do end up heading to a tailgate, wear a mask and check to make sure your fellow tailgaters are being responsible to avoid putting them, and yourself, at risk.

Risky: Thanksgiving and Halloween parties

The holiday season is fast approaching, and some people are still planning on hosting Halloween parties or Thanksgiving dinners for their families and friends. This year, though, it’s smartest to skip the indoor festivities since we know COVID-19 is most easily spread inside.

Some things the CDC recommends for gauging how risky a holiday event might be are keeping in mind the local community levels of COVID-19, the number of people at the gathering, the location of the gathering, and the gathering’s duration. Tighter spaces, high guest counts and long hangouts all contribute to increased risk of spread.

Still, that doesn’t mean that your hopes for a fun holiday season are ruined. Stick with your bubble and set up a dinner party outside, or have a virtual party on Halloween to show off your costume.

Riskiest: In-person football games

Football season has finally begun, and many fans are itching to get back and see their teams play. But as infection rates continue to rise across the country with the expectation of another peak in the next few months, it’s not advisable to head back into any mass gatherings like a football game this season.

The good news, safety-wise, is that most NFL teams are not allowing fans in person at all, and many college leagues that have not canceled their season are following suit. Some teams will allow fans to attend with limited stadium capacities, and there will be new seating guidelines in place.‘The University of Oklahoma’s guidelines, for example, will arrange family “pods” of 2-8 people with three seats on each side, with a clear path to the aisle without passing another pod. Even so, studies have shown that virus particles may travel much farther than six feet and can linger in the air for up to 14 minutes when you’re talking or yelling—or cheering for your team, so even these methods aren’t foolproof

The football season kicked off this year amid a lot of discussion about what precautions should be taken to keep players, staff and fans safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Training camps went largely without incident, and a lack of outbreaks in the first few weeks of play spurred hopes for the season. However, outbreaks like the eight cases on the Tennessee Titans just a few weeks into the season are reviving concerns.

“For a college football game or a professional football game, there’s so many people and they’re probably traveling from different areas,” says Petrie. “It would be pretty hard to make that safe.”

So this year, don’t skip game day, but skip the game—the safest thing to do is to watch it from the comfort of your home instead.